The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.

What’s On Your Bookshelf? With thanks to National Public Radio

Books with quote

The task is simple but oh so hard! Pick three books on your bookshelf that summarize you. What three books give us a snapshot of your life?

This was introduced by National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered‘ show the other day and I loved it so much I want to use it here at Communicating Across Boundaries. Anyone who responds in the comments will be put into a drawing to receive one of the books that is a snapshot of my life.

So let’s get started! My three are:

1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. Katherine Boo takes us into the stories of real people living in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. The slum shares walls with the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. This ethnically diverse community lives in close quarters, daily confronting poverty, violence, conflict, illness, and government corruption. Because I love the Indian subcontinent this book resonates at many levels.

Quote: “.. becoming attached to a country involves pressing, uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for its least powerful citizens.” 

2.The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado. This book is my heart book and chronicles the journey of a Jewish family from their home in Cairo through their adjustment to life in New York City. There is so much I love about this book, not least is its descriptions of how much this family misses Cairo and their cry of “Ragaouna Misr” (Take me back to Egypt!) that still echoes through my soul.

Quote: “We had barely drifted out of Alexandria‘s harbor when I heard my father cry ‘Ragaouna Misr!’ – Take us back to Cairo! It became his personal refrain, his anthem aboard the old cargo ship…”

3. Some Far and Distant Place by Jonathan S. Addleton. Jonathan is a childhood friend, best friend to my brother Tom through the years. He writes of growing up in Pakistan but intersperses throughout the book history of what is happening in the region – things I caught only partially while growing up. I love this book and periodically reread it. This book is home.

Quote: “…’Look carefully’ my brother said. ‘It will be a long time before you see stars shining this brightly again….'”

So now you – Three books from your bookshelf (or Kindle) that give us a snapshot of your life! 

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Blogging Trips – the New Short-Term Missions

Blogging - the new short term missions“Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” *quote to author Katherine Boo from a woman in a community she was reporting on.*

When Katherine Boo wanted to write about a community in India she spent 4 years living within blocks of the neighborhood. She went to the slum that she wrote about every day. She took copious notes and recorded conversations making every effort to check facts and verify stories.

She didn’t swoop in like an eagle eyeing its prey, ready to snatch and eat. She was steadfast and disciplined. It sounds like a laborious task, but also like a writer who was determined not to dishonor those she was writing about.

I didn’t realize until this year that there was such a thing as blogging trips for Christians, a short-term mission if you will.

Let me explain.

Let’s say an organization that works in the developing world wants to promote their work, get the word out on what they are doing. The new way to do this is to bring on popular bloggers, bloggers with thousands of readers and tens of thousands of twitter followers. The thought is that these bloggers will take their 7-day or 10-day trips to a country and come back with stories. Compelling stories of poverty and women and justice and why it’s important that we know about these people and these situations. Ultimately there are two goals: Raising awareness and raising money. The two go hand in hand.

A good writer can use their platform to do both those things for the organization.

But I’m not sure I agree with this approach to awareness or advocacy. And, though I’ve read several blog posts that challenge short-term missions, I’ve read only one essay that brings up blogging trips. 

Before I move forward let me be clear: I am really trying to work through this one. I’m not trying to point a finger, I’m not trying to judge, but I am trying to get my head around this and why I question the validity of these trips.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

The bloggers that go on short-term blogging trips are complete outsiders. They rarely know the language or the culture to which they are going. The chance of them misreading culture clues, misunderstanding what is communicated, and thus misrepresenting the situation is high, indeed probable. The chance of getting a distorted view of the country and the people is also probable. While this can happen in regular short-term mission trips, in the case of blogging trips the material is distributed to a wide audience, an audience who (in general) has not traveled, does not know the developing world in all its complexity.

The story is big, but the understanding is small.

There’s another problem that I see. And that is of glorifying the poor as sainted in their poverty, barely capable of sinning or evil. The beautiful African kids, noble in their poverty, the woman who uses her hands to sew clothes for livelihood and raises ten children on the side. The one-dimensional views that the blogger gets in their limited exposure to the situation can come across as naïve and creative writing, instead of fact telling and informative.

I think stories are important, I tell them myself. I also think that it’s important to see other parts of the world, to have our worldviews challenged and exposed, to rethink Christianity beyond a western lens. And if that is all the bloggers were doing I think I would be okay.

As I’ve tried to work through my feelings on this new type of short-term missions, I continually come back to the writing and work of Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and one who works hard to write well on poverty. I was first introduced to Boo through the excellent writing of D.L.Mayfield. She and Rachel Pieh Jones have become internet mentors to me on story telling, largely because they do it so well and have wrestled with this longer than I have. D.L.Mayfield wrote a piece called “Katherine Boo, Short-term Missions, and the Earned Fact“. In her essay she confronts well the tendency of the church to simplify problems and write without regard for the complexity of the issues.

The goal would be to write without glorifying or demonizing, to tell a story that is accurate and compelling, free of stereotypes and broad representation. In Boo we see a writer who does this, a writer with the rare ability to remove herself and ego from her narratives of others, a difficult task. She does not get lost behind sweeping generalizations but in her own words “Nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” (from Reporting Poverty in Guernica Magazine)

I see in Katherine Boo a real and honest struggle with how to report. She does not gloss over the difficulties, she does not use words like a “voice for the voiceless” or “advocate”, something that I would argue takes far longer than a week or ten days to achieve. Instead, she wrestles honestly through this work and this vocation.

I have spent a great deal of time overseas, and thankfully when I was there I had not yet discovered that I loved to write. I say thankfully because I fear it would have been far more about me than about the people or countries that I love. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time overseas that I struggle with a 7 to 10 day trip that supposedly equips the writer with material that will be widely distributed and read.

I began this piece with a quote taken from an article in Guernica Magazine called “Reporting Poverty” in which a writer interviews Katherine Boo. I come to the end of this piece with another quote – one that pierces to the heart of the issue:

“We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.”

Blogger’s note: I realize this may be controversial and I welcome diverse opinions. As I said in the piece, I’m trying to work through this and may well end up with a different opinion.

*as quoted in Guernica Magazine: Reporting Poverty by Emily Brennan